Taming the tiger within

Over-parenting and how we can help

Recent books such as How to Raise an Adult by Julie Lythcott-Haims, Taming the Tiger Parent by Tanith Carey and The Gift of Failure by Jessica Lay have highlighted the problem of over-parenting. But what exactly is it? And is there anything parents and schools can do to help?

The rise of over-parenting

Recent years have seen a rise in 'performance parenting,with children not simply allowed to enjoy their schooling but pushed by their tigerparents to excel in both their studies and extra-curricular activities. The pressure, as Tanith Carey has noted, ramps up in secondary school, where the gaps between the exams get shorter and grades, not learning, become the primary goal.

Nadia Petrossi, Senior Manager of the GEMS Parental Engagement programme, believes its crucial that parents are involvewith their childrens schooling; research shows that parental input is essential when it comes to healthy development and learning. But this doesnt equate with being pushy; Petrossi believes it is critical that parents get the balance right. The most important thing they can do in terms of their childrens learning, she says, is provide a constant source of encouragement of both their efforts and success. 

This means praising your child for working hard and sometimes merely for trying, regardless of the outcome.


What are the consequences?

Theres no doubt that parents want the best for their children; the problem is deciding what that bestentails. Many parents equate success with happiness. Yet a recent study by UNICEF which took into account childrens subjective views of their well-being in 29 of the worlds most advanced economies found, perhaps surprisingly, that kids in the UK and US ranked 16th and 26th respectively.

Jessica Lahey, an educator and author who writes the New York TimesThe Parent-Teacher Conference column, believes parents have become so consumed with ideas of their childrens future achievements that theyre failing to let them learn from their own mistakes by having to work through the obstacles in their path.This, she claims, has made students more anxious, afraid and risk-averse.

Julie Lythcott-Haims, an academic and mother of two who goes as far as describing tiger parentingas abuse, was Dean of Freshmen at Stanford University for over a decade. During her time there, she noticed a steady increase in the level of involvement parents had in their childrens lives. More and more of the young adults she came across, while highly competent academically, appeared overly-dependent on their parents and unable to take proper care of themselves.

One of the key life skills our children must develop is the ability to live without us, she says, yet, through micromanaging their lives, we are often sending them the message you actually cant do any of this without me.’’

Am I over-parenting?

Tanith Carey, who sees herself as a reformed tiger motherlists a number of potential danger signs:

  • using the word 'wewhen talking about your childs achievements
  • feeling the urge to speak on behalf of your child when you see them being questioned by a teacher or other adult
  • considering which A levels and universities your child should target before theyve even reached secondary school
  • querying your childs marks at school or university
  • doing things for your children they are old enough to do for themselves, e.g. cutting up their food, doing their washing or changing their sheets
  • blaming yourself if your child does not do well in a subject
  • repeatedly questioning refereesdecisions during your childs sport matches
  • finding your child calls you to look something up for them which they could have easily found out themselves
  • organising your teenagers appointments, morning wake-up calls, financial affairs and travel arrangements

What can parents do about it?

Stressed kids don't learn well, says Carey. We need to offer our children more support,she argues,not more lectures. Instead of turning our homes into educational boot-camps, we need to turn them into havens.

Its time to take a fresh look at what it means to be a successful parent, Carey says, and imagine how our children will look back on childhood. Will they see it as a time when they were allowed to discover themselves, or as endless hurrying from one exam to the next?

Parents need to stop judging themselves, she suggests, on their ability to turn their offspring into high achievers who gain entry to the top universities and get the best jobsand focus more on guiding children towards becoming happy, ethical, compassionate people who like themselves and value the world around them.


How can schools and teachers help?

Many teachers are already firm believers in education for educations sakeyet increasingly find the current obsessions with grades, rankings and league tables - on the part of both their studentsparents and the schools they work in - hindrances to learning.

Some colleges in the USA see over-parenting as so problematic they have gone so far as to introduce parting ceremoniesand workshops for parents finding it hard to let go when their children move on to university.

Yet, Lahey believes schools and parents need to stop blaming each other and start working together. As long as schools and parents continue to worship grades over learning, scores over intellectual bravery and testable facts over the application of knowledge,she says,kids will never believe us when we tell them that learning is valuable in and of itself.

Initiatives such as the GEMS Parental Engagement programme seek to reinforce the importance of parentsinvolvement in their childrens learning. Its worth remembering, however, that, by working together, GEMS parents and educators are looking to produce not simply great students, but great people.

Published: 20th October 2015